Tuesday 13 August 2019

Gaslight and Shadow: urban folklore of the mid-nineteenth century

All of these are authentic. Most are from Karl Bell's The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, though some come from other sources.

Image result for spring heeled jack

Cutting crosses into the backs of your ears will protect you from harm. Unfortunately it's very difficult to know when they've healed up. Get your friends to check them every day.

The severed hand of a hanged man has healing properties. This is why the authorities always hand the corpses of executed criminals over to the doctors, rather than returning them to their families.

The Book of Murder is an evil book that describes how the poor can and should be murdered by poison gas in order to reduce the surplus population. (Its official title is On the Possibility of Limiting Populousness, but if you refer to 'the book of murder' everyone will know what you mean.) Its author, a wicked clergyman known only as Marcus, roams the country in secret, murdering the children of the very poor with the connivance of the authorities. His Malthusiast followers could be coming to a slum near you any day now, armed with official warrants and barrels of poison gas.

Lucky amulets affixed to the side of a stall or barrow will bring good fortune in business.

A drunken man with a torn umbrella is the very luckiest customer you can have first thing in the morning. Tear the umbrella yourself if you have to.

Graveyard soil and holy water can be used as all-purpose protections against bad luck and evil magic.

Dragon's blood (red guam) can be burned to ensure the faithfulness of an absent lover. If they betray you, then mix more dragon's blood with brass pins and urine and bury the resulting mixture inside a glass jar, and they are sure to come to harm.

Steel Jack is a monstrous ghost or demon who roams the city by night, wearing brass armour with clawed gauntlets. He can breathe fire, is impervious to bullets, and can take the shape of a bull or bear. He escapes by springing away over walls or rooftops once he has suitably terrified his victims, although sometimes he also pulls their hair out in bloody clumps or marks them with his horrible claws. Some speculate that he is actually a wicked aristocrat who is trying to scare people to death as part of a horrible wager with his equally wicked friends.

Books of Fate can be used to tell fortunes and predict lucky and unlucky days. If you can read at all then you should own one - and if you can't, then ask someone else to read one for you. Only an idiot would attempt anything important without first consulting their Book of Fate.

Cunning men and wise women can carry out divinations, cast spells to protect you against witchcraft, and help to locate stolen goods. Every community has at least one of them, and if you have been the victim of crime then they are much more trustworthy than the Detective Police, who are probably just looking for an excuse to have your family gassed by Marcus. Don't trust a cunning man who doesn't have a magic book, or a wise woman without a magic mirror.

A boggart seer can help to protect your community against boggarts and evil fairies. If your town has boggarts but no boggart seer then you're going to be in trouble. You might be able to borrow one from another town in an emergency.

Evil spirits can be driven out by an exorcism performed by a clergyman. If you're being troubled by evil spirits, demand an exorcism from your local vicar. If he objects, threaten to get one from a dissenting minister, instead. That usually brings them round.

White pigeons tapping on windows are an omen of death. Someone within the household will die soon.

Workhouses are always looking out for ways to kill the children entrusted to them, so that they can butcher their bodies and sell the meat for pies.

Innkeepers sometimes rig their beds with spring-loaded blades, allowing them to murder and rob lone travellers by night. Always check your bed when travelling alone.

Bread baked on Good Friday has healing powers.

Nunneries are simply used as brothels by the Catholic clergy, who murder the resulting infants and bury the bodies in the grounds. Never allow your daughter to enter a nunnery.

Doctors are infamous for viewing their poorer patients as opportunities to practise the latest surgical techniques, whether their surgeries are needed or not. If you value your internal organs then you should have as little to do with them as possible.

Resurrection Men are grave robbers who secretly dig up the bodies of the recently dead in order to sell them to medical students. When they can't find enough fresh corpses they abduct and drown the living, instead. Everyone knows that the medical schools don't ask any questions.

Mesmerists can heal both mind and body with their powers, but beware: some misuse their gifts to exploit, enslave, or sexually abuse their patients. Some cruel mesmerists even mesmerise their patients into believing that they are dead, or made of glass.

Captain Swing is coming to burn down Parliament any day now. The day of reckoning approaches. Be ready.

Folklorists are an extremely dangerous breed. They will listen to your ghost stories, and pretend to believe them, but as soon as your back is turned they will write them down and print them, and ghosts hate that more than anything. Never talk to a folklorist unless you want the wrath of the whole spirit world brought down upon you.

Image result for spring heeled jack


  1. The one about nunneries ... is not wrong ...


    1. As far as I can tell, the idea that nineteenth-century British nuns were routinely forced into sexual slavery by baby-murdering priests owes less to historical fact than to pornographic anti-Catholic propaganda. However, that Catholic religious institutions frequently treated the children in their care with great cruelty and neglect is sadly true, as any number of shattered lives and unmarked graves can attest.

      That's the thing, though... a *lot* of these get the details wrong, but are pretty sound in their sense of the big picture. The ruling classes weren't *actually* going around gassing the poor or making their children into meat pies, but the idea that cruelty and indifference to the lives of the working classes was actually a matter of official policy at the time is pretty much spot on.

    2. I wonder how common was the notion of nuns forced into sexual slavery, when compared to the nuns being sexually and morally depraved on their own. What were the proportions of the two, and whether regional preference was at work.

      Also, pigeons as harbingers of death. I can imagine a hazy, weird, paranoid game where you can never know if it is an omen or just a random pigeon. "Pigeons aren't what they seem."

    3. Probably to do with perceptions of Catholicism itself.

      In Italy and France, where convents had been part of the landscape for centuries, the lustful nun was a standard pornographic figure, because everyone knew perfectly well that lots of women were forced to become nuns against their own will and probably weren't all that keen on the whole 'holy celibacy' business.

      But in nineteenth-century Britain, where Catholicism was seen as a foreign, invading/corrupting force, the worry was about innocent, impressionable British girls being lured into convents by smooth-talking Jesuits talking up the joys of celibate life, and then sexually exploited behind closed doors. 'Convents as tiresomely mundane reality' vs. 'convents as shocking foreign threat', basically.

    4. It's worth noting that violent anti-Catholicism lasted for a long time - into the middle of the 19th century, it also seems oddly familiar, reflective of some present day conspiracy theories. Nunneries replace Pizza Parlors and such.

      In the 1830's in Canada and US various grifters wrote fake or exaggerated biographies about their terrible abuse in a nunneries. These sensational tales fueled anti-Catholic violence and suspicion, prompting at least one mob attack (in Massachusetts)on a nunnery. The protestent mob fueled by bizarre rumors and whipped up by preachers attacked and burnt down the Ursuline Convent (fireman refused to intervene)They completed it's destruction a few days later and were only stopped from burning a cathedral by local militia. After the riots more sensationalized nonsense about imprisoned nuns and such were written.

  2. The Folklorists bit reminds me of all the trouble Henry Mayhew had interviewing people for "London Labour and the London Poor".

    "Why are you writing this down? Oy, look, this man here is writing down my words! Chase him off."

    1. Pretty much. People clamming up as soon as they realised that their words were going to be written and printed seems to have been a repeated source of frustration for nineteenth-century folklorists, although for the people being interviewed it probably resulted from an extremely well-founded distrust of official authority.

    2. Especially parish authorities, who loved to collect the same sort of information and use it as evidence against people (to save money).


    3. Man With a Microphone
      (Sydney Carter)

      As I went out one morning, I was singing a country song.
      I met a man with a microphone, and Oh he did me wrong.
      He led me up a grassy bank, and whipping out a tape,
      He took my country ditty down before I could escape.

      cho: With a whack for Peter and Paul and Mary
      And burly old ivy, too.

      To Tin Pan Alley he took my song and there he happened to meet
      A publisher who cleaned it up and gave the tune a beat;
      And now it's on the Hoot Parade, and now they pay a fee
      To the false young man with a microphone, and nobody thinks of me.

      I'll sell my rod, I'll sell my reel, I'll buy a steel guitar,
      I'll take a ticket to London town, and in a coffee bar
      I'll sing until my name is known, and when I'm on TV
      I'll tell the world of the false young man, and what he did to me.

      So all you pretty country girls that want to sport and play
      Be careful of your copyright, that's all they want today.
      And never trust a rovin' man, whoever he may be,
      If his hand is on the microphone, and not upon your knee.

      (tune at http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiMANMIKE;ttMANMIKE.html)

  3. Cracker jack stuff here, running with all of this. Thanks for the reference. Something I appreciate about this period is how muc of the supernatural (e.g. spiritualism, mesmerism) is coded as "science."

    1. No problem! If you're interested in popular mesmerism and spiritualism, then Alison Winter's 'Mesmerized' and Logie Barrow's 'Independent Spirits' are worth a look if you can get hold of them.

    2. This is another addition to the long list of my favorite ATWC posts! Thank you so much for these book recommendations as well as the Karl Bell one.

  4. Here are some more high-quality scans of Spring-Heeled Jack: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/imagesfrombook001833224

  5. That "Book of Murder" is haunting. I can't be the only one who is reminded of the use of poison gas in the Holocaust, a century later.

    Beyond that, though, it makes me think of Dr Mabuse, and DC Comics' "Crime Bible" and "religion of crime", and your earlier post about the weird mythology of "Criminal Man".

    1. Yeah, I was surprised (and rather creeped out) when I read about it, for the same reason. I think it's more than just chance, too, insofar as one can draw a line of intellectual descent from Malthusian political economy, to social Darwinism, to eugenics, to Nazi ideology. The specifics change, and the focus shifts from class to race, but they're all underpinned by a kind of horror of the way that low-status groups just keep *breeding* and *multiplying* like *vermin*. Lombroso's later 'criminal man' mythology is definitely an outgrowth of the same ideology.

      I've been reading a lot of 1830s political economy lately, and it does frequently sound kinda Fascistic, especially when authors like Harriet Martineau start explaining that giving food to the destitute is actively harmful because it just encourages them to keep on reproducing, and it would really be much kinder to let them all starve to death in ditches instead. Given the context, it's hardly surprising that people were willing to believe in Marcus and his Book of Murder.

    2. You should also look up the "Mad Gasser of Mattoon" - a similar figure from the 1940's who incited mass hysteria and may have been at least partially real. An attack on the middle class, not a exterminationist against the poor, but seemingly one of the few bits of mass hysteria over semi-mythological criminals in the contemporary era.

      I mean I guess we have the modern responses of urban mobilization and fear about mass killers (the Zebra Murders and Son of Sam in the 70's for example), but the sort of supernatural folk killer - "Uncle Gunnysack" or "Springheeled Jack" seems to have vanished. Though to be fair I think a lot of these older legends are less fear of the supernatural then fear of wealthy rakehells dressing up as ghosts to commit outrages on the commons (See the Hammersmith Ghost Case).

      Also it's not a 19th century thing - check out all the German Werewolf and Warlock bandit stories going back to the 15th century (maybe earlier?)

    3. I wonder how much of that train of thought owes to the rise of statistics and legibility. People could finally see how many people lived on how much per year, in how many square feet, etc.

    4. It's an interesting question. We know that the Nazis needed computers to manage the statistical complexity of the Holocaust - but I don't know if anyone's asked whether statistical knowledge itself fosters any kind of racial animus.

      I remember learning at one point that White people who overestimate the percentage of people of color in the US tend to be more xenophobic - but I don't think the direction of cause and effect was discussed at the time.

      I have wondered if we would be wise to talk less about the idea of White people losing their majority status in the US population. We know that the most xenophobic White people tend to become MORE xenophobic when they're confronted by any kind of threat (whether it's a weakening economy, political instability, or the loss of any kind of status, even the imaginary loss of imaginary status). So basically, we know that reminding them that the percentage White is slowly declining is almost guaranteed to activate their xenophobic instincts as a fear response - so maybe it would be better to talk about it less, to avoid setting off their hair-trigger authoritarianism.

    5. Gus - In his book on Spring-Heeled Jack, Bell suggests that it was the Ripper murders which finally eclipsed Spring-Heeled Jack in the popular imagination, which would suggest that a lot of this stuff got subsumed into the serial killer mythology of the 20th century.

      Skerples and Anne - I think it is due to statistics, at least indirectly. Until 1800-ish, everyone always seems to have been convinced that populations were falling, and the world was sliding into decay. The worry was always over *depopulation*. It's only after people started compiling decent census information that they started getting anxious about overpopulation instead...

  6. I love this, and would love to see more, especially from different times and cultures.

    1. I'll have to see what else my reading turns up!

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